In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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In the Heart of the Sea | Summary



Nathaniel Philbrick's sources include narratives written by Owen Chase and Thomas Nickerson and the as-told-to account of Captain George Pollard Jr. The author uses peripheral psychological and scientific material and historical accounts to enrich the meaning of the story.


First the narrator explains that for over a century Nantucket was the center of the global whale oil business, and many of the whalers were, contradictorily, Quakers who espouse pacifism. Whaling is a brutal and dirty business, in which men busied themselves killing the planet's largest mammals.

The narrator takes the reader back to the day in 1821 when the whaleship Dauphin spotted a whaleboat from the Essex, a ship destroyed by a sperm whale. The two survivors were near death—starving and gnawing on the bones of what used to be their shipmates. Of the 20 men who escaped the Essex, only eight survived—and three of them had chosen to bail out of the journey on an island along the route. The men in the boat had sailed about 4,500 nautical miles. The Essex disaster speaks to the "issues of class, race, leadership, and man's relationship to nature." And it spotlights Nantucket as "relentlessly acquisitive, technologically advanced, with a religious sense of its own destiny," a microcosm of "what America would become."

Chapter 1: Nantucket

Thomas Nickerson is 14 when he signs up on the Essex for his first whaleship voyage. His teenage friends Barzillai Ray, Owen Coffin, and Charles Ramsdell will also be going to sea. Owen Coffin is the cousin of the new captain, George Pollard Jr.

The narrator provides a brief history of the whaling industry on Nantucket, along with backstory of how most of the islanders became Quakers. Nantucketers are an insular breed and look down on "coofs," people born off their island. According to the narrator, besides their Quakerism, the island's European descendants share a bloodlust connected to their obsession with killing whales. Whalers spend years away from home, and independent wives raise children and keep the businesses running. Given the shortage of labor, the Nantucketers are forced to hire off-islanders as ship hands, including African Americans from the mainland. Pollard hires seven black sailors, who are paid the same (very little) as white sailors of the same rank.

Chapter 2: Knockdown

Twenty-eight-year old George Pollard is a first-time captain. The clumsy work of the "green hands" (inexperienced sailors) attempting to prepare the Essex for departure is supervised by first mate Owen Chase, age 22, and second mate, Matthew Joy, 26. Once underway, the men are divided into two shifts or watches. The three whaleboats are assigned their crews (the men use the whaleboats when they are hunting). Eating and sleeping is segregated. The captain and mates have cabins in the aft (back of the ship); the white sailors live in steerage; and the black sailors live in the cramped forecastle in the forward part of the ship.

Three days out the Essex hits bad weather in the Gulf Stream, but the captain refuses to "shorten sail" (take the sails down). Then he waits too long to order the ship to turn away from the squall, and as a result the Essex rolls "almost ninety degrees onto her side." The ship is badly damaged, and Pollard wants to return to Nantucket for repairs, but he is convinced by Chase and Joy to keep going.

Chapter 3: First Blood

The Essex whalemen sail to the Azores for whaleboats but find none to buy. They pick up a battered whaleboat and some hogs in the Cape Verde Islands. After the Essex crosses the equator, they have their first sighting of a pod of whales. Three whaleboats are prepared, and they go out hunting. A second whale slaps Owen Chase's boat with its tail and damages it, which calls off the hunt. Several days later they kill their first whale. The crew peels off the blubber on a cutting platform and then lowers it in pieces into the blubber room, where it is further cut, boiled, and turned into oil. They also extract the high-quality spermaceti from the whale's head, which will be turned into oil, wax, and other products. Morale on the ship is low because of the knockdown and since the crew has caught only one whale in four months. The sailors complain about their food and are quickly shut down by the captain.

Chapter 4: The Lees of Fire

It takes the Essex a month to round Cape Horn in South America. The crew finally has some success off the Peruvian coast, and in two months they boil down about 450 barrels of oil—or 11 whales. For the whalemen, their prey is nothing more than "a self-propelled tub of high-income lard"—commodities whose head and blubber will be turned into cash. The rest of the whale—meat, bone, and guts—is wantonly discarded in the ocean.

Captain George Pollard Jr. meets the former commander of the Essex at sea, who tells him about a new whaling ground 1,000 miles from Peru. Pollard decides to head for this "Offshore Ground." The crew makes two stops—one at the Galapagos Islands, where they pick up 180 giant tortoises for future consumption. (Tortoises can live for a year on the ship without food or water.) At the other stop Thomas Chappel, one of the Essex crew, starts a fire on Charles Island, while pulling a prank, and burns the island down.

Chapter 5: The Attack

By November 16 the Essex is over 1,000 miles west of the Galapagos, following the equator through the Pacific Ocean. The men finally spot whales. Benjamin Lawrence, who is now steering the whaleboat since Owen Chase took away his harpooning position, comes too close to a whale, and it knocks a hole in the craft. Chase and his men must return to the ship for repairs. While Chase repairs the boat, an 85-foot sperm whale attacks the Essex twice with its massive head, sinking it with seemingly deliberate malice. Chase has a chance to kill it but fears its tail will smash the ship's rudder. In fact, the whale smashes the ship and sinks it. The steward William Bond rescues Pollard's and Chase's trunks along with navigational equipment. The other two whaleboats speedily return, and the men quickly grab provisions and pile them in the boats.

Chapter 6: The Plan

The weary men spend a rough first night in their three whaleboats and scavenge the sinking ship in the morning, taking two tortoises into each boat. The Essex's sails are used to make smaller ones for the whaleboats, and the men build up the sides of the boats. The crew wraps the hardtack (bread) in layers of canvas to keep it dry. The officers must now set a course. Captain George Pollard Jr. wants to go to the Society Islands, along a reasonable wind path and about 2,000 miles away. His first and second mates overrule him, insisting they return to the coast of South America. Because of the sea breezes, they will have to first go south for 1,500 miles before they can get back to Chile or Peru (going east and north). Owen Chase claims they can travel 60 miles a day. They have 60 days' worth of rations, which should be enough for the trip. Twenty men are now divided among the boats. The captain gets most of the Nantucketers, while the second mate, Matthew Joy, gets most of the black sailors.

Chapter 7: At Sea

The men are on rations of half a pint of water a day and six ounces of hardtack (dried bread), which is much less food and water than is required by a grown man. To keep track of position, a sailor needs to reckon both latitude (north/south from the equator) and longitude (east/west from the Prime Meridian). Captain George Pollard Jr. decides to give up the idea of recording longitude, since they don't have the equipment to easily measure it. Thus, the crew of the Essex does not know how far they are from South America.

The crew undergoes several trials and begins to suffer seriously from starvation and dehydration. The boats begin losing track of one another, and the three officers decide not to force themselves to stay together since they are losing too much time. After 17 days at sea, they are further from South America than when they left the sunken Essex. On December 9, they reach the latitude of the Society Islands but stick with their original plan to keep going south.

Chapter 8: Centering Down

On December 13 the wind begins blowing, so they can steer directly for South America, but then the northerly breeze disappears and the ships are becalmed (motionless without wind). With hundreds of miles still to go, it becomes clear their provisions will run out, so Owen Chase cuts bread rations in half. The men do not come across much marine life because they are traveling through what will in later years be known as the "Desolate Region," with little or no sea life or birds. The boats finally catch an east-southeast wind, but it takes them further off course. Some of the men are beginning to give up, but on December 20th they spot land.

Chapter 9: The Island

Captain George Pollard Jr., Owen Chase, Matthew Joy, and the sailors reach Henderson Island, having travelled 1,500 nautical miles. The men are so dehydrated and weak they have trouble speaking and can hardly walk. The captain and his steward find food as the rest of the crew looks for water. They find a spring below the tide line, which is exposed only for a short time at the lowest point of the tide each day. Over the next several days they establish a routine of collecting food and water, but realize there is not enough wildlife on the island to sustain them. They still have to travel 3,000 miles to Chile, so they make a plan to stop next at Easter Island, about 1,000 miles away. Before departure, Thomas Chappel and two Cape Cod teenagers, Seth Weeks and William Wright, step forward and ask to stay on the island. The captain agrees and says he will send someone to rescue them if the whaleboats make it back to civilization.

Chapter 10: The Whisper of Necessity

The Essex crew now uses dead reckoning—a rudimentary type of navigation—to determine their longitude, so they are no longer sailing blind. At first the wind blows them toward Easter Island, but then the winds shift, and they move too far south to reach the island. Matthew Joy dies on January 10, and the men bury him at sea. His death sinks morale, and 21-year-old Obed Hendricks takes Joy's place on the third boat. He soon learns no one has been monitoring the food, and the hardtack will be gone in a few days.

The Essex crew is caught in a gale, and they agree to keep sailing anyway if they lose sight of one another. Owen Chase, as usual, is in the lead, and sometime in the night he loses the other boats. Since they still have 1,200 miles to go, Chase makes the hard decision to half the half-rations. Meanwhile Obed Hendricks's boat runs out of provisions, and Captain George Pollard Jr. shares his.

Chase's boat has been becalmed again. He begins to think it is "their destiny to die" and "Divine Providence had abandoned [them] at last." An old black sailor, Richard Peterson, falls into unconsciousness and dies. The next day he is also buried at sea.

Chapter 11: Games of Chance

On January 20, 1821, Captain George Pollard Jr. and Obed Hendricks are coming to the end of their provisions when black sailor Lawson Thomas dies, and the men agree to eat his body. Over the next seven days, two more African American sailors die and are cannibalized. On January 29, Obed Hendricks's whaleboat disappears, along with Hendricks, William Bond, and Joseph West, never to be heard from again.

On February 6, Charles Ramsdell, on Captain Pollard's boat, suggests they draw lots to determine who will be killed so the rest may live. Pollard's young cousin Owen Coffin draws the unlucky lot and is shot and eaten. On Owen Chase's boat, the men can barely crawl around because they are so weak.

Chapter 12: In the Eagle's Shadow

The breeze finally begins blowing Owen Chase's boat east. Isaac Cole dies, and Chase's men eat Cole's corpse. Meanwhile, Barzillai Ray dies on Captain George Pollard Jr.'s boat. Chase's boat gets within 300 miles of their destination, the Juan Fernandez Islands, but they are almost out of rations. On the morning of February 18, Benjamin Lawrence spots a sail. Chase's boat rushes to catch up with the whaleship Indian, which finally spots them and takes them aboard. The Indian is headed for the Chilean port of Valparaiso.

Captain George Pollard Jr. and Charles Ramsdell sail on, about 300 miles south, until February 23. They are also near death when they are spotted by the whaleship Dauphin, which takes the only remaining crew, Pollard and Ramsdell, aboard.

Chapter 13: Homecoming

Captain George Pollard Jr. and Charles Ramsdell reunite with Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence in Valparaiso. Captain William Coffin of Nantucket takes all but Pollard back to Nantucket in his ship. Pollard must stay two more months in South America to recuperate. Meanwhile, a rescue is arranged for the sailors stranded on Henderson Island.

The sailors are welcomed back home, although Owen Coffin's mother cannot forgive Pollard for what happened to her son. The community does not judge the survivors harshly, since people made allowances for what men sometimes had to do in desperate situations at sea. Pollard even gets a new command—of the Two Brothers. Chase writes an account of the Essex disaster. The Nantucketers are not happy about his sharing the gory details of his story with the world. Thus, he must work out of New Bedford for over a decade. Both Nickerson and Ramsdell ship out with Pollard on the Two Brothers.

Chapter 14: Consequences

One rainy night in 1823, the Two Brothers is shipwrecked on a coral reef, although Captain George Pollard Jr. and his crew are immediately rescued. This ruins Pollard's career, since he is now considered unlucky. He becomes a night watchman when he returns to Nantucket. Owen Chase becomes a captain early and has a successful whaling career but a troubled personal life. Charles Ramsdell continues his whaling career, and Thomas Nickerson switches to the merchant service, eventually returning to Nantucket to run a boardinghouse. Benjamin Lawrence sticks with whaling and also becomes a captain. The two Cape Codders, Seth Weeks and William Wright, continue with whaling. Wright is lost at sea during a hurricane, and Weeks eventually retires to Cape Cod. The writer Herman Melville makes use of details about the whale attack to write the ending of Moby-Dick.

By 1835, New Bedford eclipses Nantucket as America's leading whaling town, and by the 1840s, whaling in Nantucket is in its sunset years. The last whaling vessel leaves Nantucket in 1869. Despite the extensive killing, the sperm whale has rebounded, and today there are between 1.5 and 2 million sperm whales worldwide, the most abundant species of the great whales.

Epilogue: Bones

The epilogue caps the story with a recounting of a sperm whale washing up on the beach in Nantucket in 1997. After the whale dies, the Nantucket Historical Association strips the whale of its meat and blubber and cleans the skeleton, so it can be on display in the refurbished museum of the Nantucket Historical Association. The Association is the guardian of the island's past and wants to ensure that the whalemen's story is properly told. Today, Nantucket is a thriving resort town, living off its romantic past. But the Essex tragedy isn't easily told in a pretty brochure tourists can pick up at the Chamber of Commerce. The narrator concludes that the Essex story is not a tale of adventure but "one of the greatest true stories ever told."

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